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You are here: Home  >  small office/home office  > news  
bankrate.com
Small Biz at bankrate.com
10 tricks to help your small
business cast a big shadow

By Pat Curry • bankrate.comSM

Making a small business look biggerJuly 3, 2000 -- You've got the skills, the products and the services to make you stand out in a crowd. But you compete against companies with more money, more personnel, more name recognition and more clout. Fortunately, with the right technology, the right attitude and the right image, your clients never need to know that corporate headquarters is a walk-in closet.

In this story:

1. Get a real
phone system

2. Polish your
presentation

3. Use technology

4. Incorporate

5. The right address
is everything

6. Use the royal 'we'

7. Meet on their turf

8. Accept credit cards

9. Consider a
toll-free number

10. Exceed
expectations

Here are 10 ways a small office/home office (SOHO) can look, feel and act a lot bigger than it is. Some require cash; others just demand a commitment to professionalism. Together, they're an investment in the success of your business.

1. Get a real phone system.
"When it comes to telephones, associated equipment, and services, it's time to splurge," says Debra Koontz Traverso, author of Outsmarting Goliath: How to Achieve Equal Footing with Companies That are Bigger, Richer, Older and Better Known. "Buy or lease the best system or service you can justify."

The phone system for Drapkin Technology in New York includes a company directory that you can dial by name. Every extension on the system goes directly to the desk of Michael Drapkin.

"When a client calls, the first impression is they're dealing with a company," says Drapkin, who also is chair of Columbia University's e-commerce track. "I'm still a company; I'm just the only employee. A $3,000 to $4,000 system gives you functionality of a system that 10 years ago cost $50,000."

If the thought of plunking down three grand gives you hives, there are plenty of affordable options. At very least, you need more than one phone line.

"Nothing spells 'amateur' like having to say, 'Call me before you send a fax,' " says Atlanta-based professional speaker and communications consultant Marilynn Mobley.

Separate lines for home and business are the best arrangement, Koontz said. A residential line is cheaper, but only a business phone will get you into the business listings in the phone book.

If that's not in the budget, ask your phone company about getting more than one number on the same line, with distinctive rings. That way, you know when the kids can get it and when you need to answer the phone with a formal business greeting.

Also, look into voice mail because answering machines don't work when the power goes off.

2. Polish your presentation.
Whether it's a Web site or your business cards, your message should be polished and professional. Stever Robbins, president of Massachusetts-based VentureCoach.com, has seen the benefit of investing in the look and feel of both his site and his printed materials.

"I went out and bought a font that I use just for this one thing," Robbins said. "At first I thought, 'Wow, I just spent $500 on a font. How stupid is that?' But I've been uniformly told my package is among the nicest people have seen."

Among the most common mistakes home-based companies make, Robbins said, is using Web sites and printed materials created with cheap template programs. This is a job for pros.

"Unless you have external reason to believe otherwise, you're not a designer, you're not a writer, and you're not a user interface designer," Robbins said. "Those are the three things people think they're good at, and they're not. I've developed a lot of respect for professionals who do their jobs well."

3. Use technology.
Many SOHOs stay organized with the help of Palm Pilots; and application service providers (ASPs) such as HotOffice.com help small companies access the high-cost technology that often gives big companies the edge.

"When a client calls, the first impression is they're dealing with a company. I'm still a company; I'm just the only employee."

"Most companies don't have IT or MIS people," says Mickey Freeman, senior vice president of marketing and sales at HotOffice.com. "Software is expensive to buy and install. With a Web-based service, you can rent or lease it. It's leveling the playing field for companies that would have had to plunk down $15,000 to $20,000 to set it up."

Michael Britt, president of Computer Clown in Virginia, sells computers and peripherals, provides software training, designs systems and sets up small offices. He's also a professional clown. Among other things, he uses HotOffice.com to access documents and PowerPoint presentations from the road.

"The more professional I can make my business look, the better my opportunities will be," he says. "If I'm in the field and don't have a price list with me, I pull up HotOffice and say, 'I can get that for you.' If I need to create a business letter, I can make myself look good."

4. Incorporate.
"YourBiz Inc." carries more weight than simply "YourBiz," Robbins says. It also cuts out 1099 processing, which signals that you're a sole proprietor. If you don't want to deal with separate income tax returns and quarterly reports to the IRS, unemployment fund contributions and annual registrations with the state division of corporations, at least use a DBA.

5. The right address is everything.
If you have an address that sounds professional, use it. If, however, you live on Pleasant Hill Road or Periwinkle Lane, you might want to consider renting a post office box or a box at a mailing service company. In any situation, Traverso suggests adding a suite number.

6. Use the royal 'we.'
Always use "we" when referring to yourself in discussions with your clients or prospects, says Tanya F. Hilleary, president of Virginia-based Riverbyte Communications. Also, never make big decisions on the spot. If they say, "Well you're the president, can't you make the decision?" say, "I need to consult with my executive committee on these matters," and let it be that. "The executive committee may be your pet spaniel," Hilleary says, "but at least you're not getting bullied by a client because you're a small shop."

7. Meet on their turf.
Unless your space offers some unique advantage for a meeting, don't meet clients at your office. Go to them, or borrow space at an office to meet. If you take a client to lunch, Mobley suggests using a corporate charge card to pay for meals with clients. It's more impressive and makes your expenses easier to track.

8. Accept credit cards.
People don't expect that from a sole proprietor. Besides, if you're doing business on the Net, you're dead in the water if you don't.

9. Consider a toll-free number.
It says you want people to inquire about your company, to the extent you'll pay for the inquiry, Mobley said.

10. Exceed expectations.
"Answer their questions before the question is even asked," says Eliza Taylor, president of Eliza.com, a Web company that sells unique art and gifts. "We have live, online help, email and an 800 number to do orders. Our key message is customer service, making sure each time they come, it's an experience that's a positive one and one they can pass along to their friends."

Pat Curry is a free-lance writer based in Georgia
To comment on this story, please email the Bankrate.com editors

Related information:
Discuss this story on our SmallBiz message board
More SmallBiz Finance reports
Search the latest small business rates
Check out SmallBiz basics

--Posted: July 3, 2000

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